Cedar Rapids native gaining critical acclaim for debut novel
'The Nix' drawing attention from John Irving, others
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It was the best of moves, it was the worst of moves.
As a kid, Nathan Hill’s family moved every couple of years as his father moved up the Kmart Corp. ladder.
On the plus side, Hill said he’s “never been afraid of trying something new and going someplace where you know nobody.”
On the downside: “If you’ve ever been the new kid, it can be a very lonely place,” he said. “I grew up with feeling a lot of loneliness. It takes a good six months figuring out your place in a new school.”
The former Gazette reporter, now 40, channeled both into his debut novel, “The Nix.” Released Aug. 30, it’s already garnering critical praise, including this endorsement from one of his author idols, John Irving:
“‘The Nix’ is a mother-son psychodrama with ghosts and politics, but it’s also a tragicomedy about anger and sanctimony in America. Even the minor characters go to extremes — among them, a Home Ec teacher from Hell and an unrepentant plagiarist with presidential aspirations. ‘A maestro of being awful,’ the son calls his mom. ‘Every memory is really a scar,’ she tells him. For this mother and son, disappointment is ‘the price of hope’ — a cost they will both bear. Nathan Hill is a maestro of being terrific.’”
That praise is especially heady, since Hill was at the University of Iowa when Irving was teaching at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The celebrated author of “The Cider House Rules” and “The World According to Garp” had studied under Kurt Vonnegut there in the late 1960s.
“It’s pretty fantastic — definitely a career highlight,” Hill said of Irving’s accolades.
Before Hill switched his focus from biomedical engineering to English and journalism at UI, he “discovered” Irving’s writings. “Being in the same town, being close to the same things made (writing) seem achievable in a weird way, so I just inhaled his work,” Hill said by phone from a recent book-tour stop in Jackson, Miss.
Now Hill is the teacher, although he’s on a two-year leave of absence from his tenured post at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., while promoting his novel. He’ll be in Iowa City to read from “The Nix” on Oct. 8 at Prairie Lights Books, during the Iowa City Festival of Books.
He practices what he preaches to his beginning creative writing students.
“I notice that my students will always turn in stories where they think that they need something really ridiculous and absurd to achieve drama,” he said. “And so they’ll turn in stories full of murder, mayhem, chaos and violence — it’s mostly stuff that they’ve borrowed from Hollywood, like a much more gruesome equivalent of a ‘Law and Order’ episode.
“I try to tell them the most dramatic stories are the ones where they reach way down deep into their own personal terrors and fears and confusion, and find that everyday drama — the things that you just worry about. It’s amazing, but writing about things that are very personal to you, you realize that other people have been thinking exactly the same thing, and you get to report back to the world on things that people only barely knew about, but find weirdly familiar.
“I forget what writer had the quote, but I love it. It’s something like, ‘If you survive adolescence, you have enough material in you for a novel.’ So I make sure to tell them you don’t need to borrow these giant dramatic devises from Hollywood. Just think about your everyday confusion in real life and focus like a laser beam on those things.”
‘THE NIX’ PLOT
Hill, a published short-story writer, has woven bits of his history through layers of complex characters whose diverse threads have common parallels as they threaten to unravel. The narrative jumps between 1968 and 2011, with a trip to 1958 and touchstones anchored in presidential conventions and cities from the Midwest to New York, Norway and Iraq.
It’s a journey of discovery for Samuel Andresen-Anderson, a young college professor who’s spinning his wheels with a promised novel that hasn’t materialized. His world first turned upside down at age 11, when his mother, Faye, abandoned the family. Two decades later, his mother has “gone viral,” for hurling rocks at an ultra-right-wing governor with presidential aspirations. She’s landed in jail, amid a media- and internet-fueled feeding frenzy. Her lawyers reach out to her long-lost son to be a character witness.
Unlike Faye, Hill’s mother is not a “terrorist hippie radical prostitute.” But when he needed a “poignant Mom-detail,” he dipped into his own memories from her life, like her Norwegian heritage, rural Iowa upbringing and favorite dishes to cook.
“I had to warn her that when she read the book, she would find some of it very familiar,” he said with a laugh, adding that unlike his mom, Faye is “very cold, mean at times. She’s very distant, and of course, abandoned the family.” That’s where their stories veer in opposite directions.
The book’s title comes from the mythical Norse shapeshifting creature that carries away people — especially children — often to a watery death. In Hill’s analogy, the nix is “anything you love that one day disappears, taking with it a piece of your heart.”
Hill also has spun pieces of himself and his life experiences into various characters and characteristics.
l Samuel’s a literary professor. He’s a literature professor. Samuel loses himself in the role-playing video game titled World of Elfscape. Hill lost several years of his concentration to World of Warcraft. “I spent more time playing this game than writing this book,” he said, and when he stopped, his writing “really took off.”
l Samuel has a crush on his friend’s sister, a violinist named Bethany. Hill’s wife is professional bassoonist. “I like to hope my relationship with my wife is much more mature,” he said.
l Samuel has a student caught in web of plagiarism and drama. Hill sees that, too, among his students. However, his fictional cheater, Laura, became his favorite character. As he tried to figure out what made her act out, he said he started feeling some sympathy for her. “She’s the smartest character in the book,” he said.
Hill spent 10 years writing the book, incorporating research and interview strategies honed from his background in newspaper and magazine journalism. He joined The Gazette as an intern after graduating from UI in 1999, then moved into a full-time position in the Iowa City office until 2001, working the nightside and school beats for six months, then covering the Iowa City Council.
He left to try fiction writing, earning an MFA in creative writing from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. From there, he worked for the Academy of American Poets and Florida Gulf Coast University before landing at St. Thomas in St. Paul.
He embarked on his book project in August 2004 and finished his first draft in the summer of 2014. He spent countless hours doing research in the Chicago History Museum archives, since a large part of the book revolves around the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago — marked by violence and Vietnam War protests — long before Hill was born.
He also interviewed veterans and read “hundreds” of letters from soldiers, and pored over “many pages” of congressional testimony on IEDs, video game theory and Scandinavian folklore.
“Writing at The Gazette prepared me rather nicely for this effort,” he said.
He quickly pointed out that he didn’t work on the book full time. He spent a couple of years “totally floundering,” he said.
When he did get serious about writing, he also was diving into teaching, and renovating a house with his wife. Writing brought him “a little measure of joy.”
“The way I think about it now, you work 10 years on a book and you can’t put all of your hopes on publishing that book, because publishing is really hard, and a lot of great books don’t get published. If all of my hopes for 10 years were resting on publishing this book, if it didn’t happen, it would be sort of shattering, and I wouldn’t be able to bear that.
“So the way I began thinking about the book a long time ago, is like how you might think about keeping a garden. People don’t keep a garden to get famous. They don’t feel their garden is a failure if a lot of people don’t see it. They just like keeping a garden.”
He tended his word garden first thing in the morning every day, writing five to seven pages in a small notebook, then typing up his pages “right away” on a computer. He doesn’t make an outline — he prefers discovering his characters as their plots unfold, and he prefers the slow, measured pace of writing longhand.
He’s in the exploratory stages of writing another book.
“It’s about marriage and authenticity and justification in the ’90s,” he said.
For now, he’s trying not to get carried about by “The Nix” and its success.
“It’s very new and gratifying,” he said. “I’m incredibly grateful. If I think too much about it, I get a little overwhelmed.”
What: Nathan Hill reads from “The Nix,” during the Iowa City Book Festival
When: 1 p.m. Oct. 8, with Alexander Maksik, “Shelter in Place”
Where: Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St., Iowa City
Author’s website: Nathanhill.net
Review: Read Rob Cline’s review of “The Nix” in Sunday’s Gazette